COVID-19: A bigger threat to Native Americans?

Published: Mar. 13, 2020 at 12:09 PM CDT
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The Native American community may be under a heightened threat from COVID-19 more so than other races.

In the 2009, the H1N1 influenza pandemic disproportionately hit Native Americans around country. They were four times more likely to die from the disease than all other ethnic groups.

Jerilyn LeBeau Church is the CEO of Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board. She says it is difficult for impoverished people to make healthy decisions which then sets them up to be more susceptible to infection.

U.S. Census Data shows 51 percent of South Dakota Native Americans fall below the poverty line (the highest rate in the nation) - a stark contrast to the nine percent of white people in the state in the same category.

"When you hear the guidelines from the CDC, they are asking people to take extra precautions with those who are autoimmune deficient or who are dealing with chronic disease. When you look at our native population that is the majority of our patients," LeBeau Church said.

Personal poverty is a problem but so is the funding and staffing of institutions like tribal health clinics and the Indian Health Service.

"Indian Health Service and many of our tribal clinics are not adequately prepared," LeBeau Church said. "I don't think the rest of the nation is adequately prepared either but it is even more amplified in our tribal communities."

While money is an issue, the nature of native households also works against them. Elders often are the primary providers for young children, posing a significant transmission threat from the relatively unaffected youth to the hyper-vulnerable elderly.

Diseases running through Native American communities comes with added fear.

"There's a lot of fear in our communities," LeBeau Church said. "You look at the history of diseases that have impacted our population - tuberculosis, smallpox - there's a historical trauma trigger that is emanating in our communities and rightfully so."

Many researchers point to smallpox as the mostly deadly disease for Native Americans. In the 15th century, the disease had a mortality rate among Europeans of 20-50 percent, but could completely wipe out entire tribes.

Elders play a huge role in Native American culture, which is why organizations are taking big steps to protect them.

Church says Oyate Health Centers are working on delivering medications to patients so they don't have to come into a facility and risk exposure. They are not the only ones.

"We are not allowing visitors to come into the Oglala Sioux Lakota Nursing Home until further notice to assure residents protection from COVID-19," said Samantha Janis, admissions coordinator for the Oglala Lakota Nursing Home.

Governments are also taking note. Canada has already committed $100 million to supporting their Native American communities.